My Favorite Tools for Running an Online Business
Updated: Aug 27, 2021
This post contains affiliate links, and I may receive a commission if you make a purchase using my link, but there is no additional cost to you. I am not an employee of any of these companies.
I love free stuff! So a lot of the tools I use have free versions, but of course there will always be more functionality with the paid versions, so I've indicated whether a product or service has free or paid versions.
This is where I post my list of recommended products, and products that I don't recommend. I've included links for you to both of those so you can check them out and make up your own mind.
I will also update this page when I find new products and services that I think are helpful for writers and teachers who want to start or run an online business without having to pay an arm and a leg for it.
If you're going to run an online business, then you MUST have your own website! It's the only way that you can do what you really want to do with your business. Every other site can impose their own restrictions and change them whenever they want to.
Both of the website providers I've listed here have free versions. Try them both and test them out to see which one you like best.
My recommendation: Wix
Why? Everything on the back end is just done for you. I tried free versions for both that are listed, and looked into the options. Overall, WordPress would have required me to either do a lot more on the tech end, or hire someone to do that for me. Wix's premium plans offer a ton of functionality: your own membership site, integrated email management, forms, web themes, integrated plug-ins, your own e-commerce, and automatic updates.
I love Wix! I started with the free plan to test it out, so I didn't have my own domain name. Once I knew I was going to use it for business, I upgraded to the premium plan, and use Wix to host and manage my domains. They also make it really easy to set up your own email addresses with your own verified domain. You'll definitely need that if you're going to use the site for your business, because some of programs that manager your email lists require a verified domain and an email address that doesn't end in google.com or yahoo.com. They want to make sure that you're running a legitimate business, and if you have your email address tied to your domain then it shows that you have more of a commitment to your business and that it's not just a fly-by-night setup. Click here to check out Wix.
WordPress: com vs org
A lot of people like WordPress for blogging. It's not expensive to start because it's open software and free, but you do have to pay for all of the additional plug-ins and themes, domain registration, etc. You also have to manage all of the updates and tech.
I used the free version for a time, which is a different site from the paid version, but I still found that there was a LOT I had to figure out on my own. It also meant that I had no control over the advertising.
As I said, you can purchase themes from other developers, and many of them will provide tech support, but it's an additional cost.
This is why I went with Wix; all of that was done behind the scenes and I could just focus on blogging without worrying about the tech.
Wordpress.org is the site that uses open source software, which means that it's free. You do have to do your own design and tech support, or pay someone else to do it for you (see above).
Wordpress.com has a free plan, but they run ads on your site so you don't receive any income from that. You also can't control what ads are run, although they do try to match it to the content that you post.
If you don't already have a mailing list, or if your list is still tiny and is basically just your mom a few friends who signed up to help you out, you need 2 things:
A system to manage your contacts well
A way to reach out to others that you want to help (which is really the best reason to be in business)
Quick Review of contact management programs
My recommendation: MailerLite
Why? LOTS of functionality (even on the free plan), very easy to use, and their customer service is phenomenal, even on the free plan.
Love this program! It's so easy to set up landing pages, link to them, have my freebies sent automatically to people, and email everyone on my mailing list. And they have fantastic customer service, even on the free plan!
I use the free program, which is available if you have less than 1,000 people on your mailing list.
That free program still allows me to:
Segment my list based on interest, so if people are interested in a topic I can let them know about other resources
Create my own landing pages: I don't need to pay for additional software!
Automate email sequences, so when someone is interested in either a free download or one of my products, I can set up a series of emails to help them get the most out of whatever they were interested in
Track email open rates so I know that if someone isn't reading my emails or interested in the information or products that I'm offering
Clean up the list
What does "clean up the list" mean?
It means if someone hasn't opened an email from me in awhile (6 months), they might not be a real person. It might be a bot that submitted requests for downloads or was added based on a link on a website. When your list gets larger and you move to a paid program, those bots can end up costing a lot of money because of the number of wasted emails you'll send. So MailerLite has a feature where you can delete anyone who hasn't opened an email, based on the parameters you set. 6 months is the time that I've heard it recommended most, so if someone hasn't opened an email from you in that time, you can delete them from your list just by running that feature.
And did I mention they have great customer service? They truly do, which is rare today.
It's also a big factor in making decisions about who to work with, and who to buy products and service from. I'm sure you've been on the receiving end of bad customer service, which can really turn you off from buying something, even if it's a great product or service. Click here to check out MailerLite.
I don't use it, and haven't used it, but I know a lot of people really like it. I know this, because I'm on mailing lists that use it, and they promote it while talking about the features (just so you know where I'm coming from!). It has a lot of the same features as MailerLite, but it doesn't offer a free plan. They do have a great reputation, but that's all I can say since I haven't used it, except that I think it's definitely worth looking into its features and costs to see if it would work for you. Click here to check out ConvertKit
I know a lot of people like MailChimp, but I found their user interface to be very confusing. I started on the free program (when I was the only person on my mailing list!) and got a good start on building my mailing list...and then they changed their options and REALLY limited the services for free users. It was good to start with, but I wanted to be able to segment my list and automate. When someone requests a free download, I didn't want them to have to wait for me to manually reply and send them the link; they should be able to get the download right away.
They also didn't offer much AT ALL in customer support for the free version. I think that's terrible, because when you're just starting out, you really need a LOT more help with troubleshooting and just figuring out how things work.
The only support they offered for those of us trying out the free plan was a lot of articles in their "help" section of the website.
It was when they "upgraded" and changed the features available for the free plan that I left. Once you give customers (or employees) certain benefits, you can't take them away. It ticks people off, because now they've lost something that they saw as a benefit of doing business with you. Unfortunately, the features that MailChimp took away from the free plan were the very ones that caused me to sign up in the first place, and if they worked well for me then I would have upgraded to the paid plan. Click here to check out MailChimp.
(That was when I switched to MailerLite)
Once you have your email system set up, and you start giving away freebies, it's really easy to forget what freebies you have, why you have them, where you keep them, and how they're supposed to fit into your sales funnel.
I was getting really frustrated with this, and with all of the lists I kept making to remember those details. I used to teach people how to use software, so I know the ins and outs of most of the Microsoft Office programs.
That's why I created a system in Excel to keep track of the individual freebies, where they fit into the sales funnel, and a way to see the entire sales funnel from start to finish for each of my sales funnels. It includes a video so you can see how to use it, and how to customize it. Click here for the Sales Funnel Tracking Spreadsheet.
Anyone can use Pinterest for free and pin craft projects, books, recipes, etc. But if you're going to use it to promote your business, you need to set up a business account. It's free for business accounts, too!
There are 5 Big Benefits for a Business Account:
You can see how many clicks your pins get and make better choices about your content and sales
It allows you to have your website recognized by Pinterest as a business site, when you go through the site verification process (which is a lot easier than that sounds)
It allows you to advertise your products, services, and blog posts (it's also a really inexpensive place to advertise!)
You're less likely to be tagged as a spammer when you post a lot of pins
Lends credibility to your business because it shows you're not just a fly-by-night scammer
If you post too often, or haphazardly, Pinterest won't rank you as highly in the searches. They want to see you posting and creating new content consistently (if you're running a business) and often. But part of the point of running an online business is so that you don't have to be tied to your work and computer all the time, so that's a problem! That's why I use Tailwind, (scroll down for more about Tailwind) which will pin automatically for me on Pinterest! It also works for Instagram, but I'm not on Instagram so I haven't tried that part of the program.
Pinterest also has the ability to join group boards.
Group boards are set up by Pinterest users on their own, but they're boards that others are allowed to share their pins on as well. I've listed below some of the group boards that I participate in as examples. Click the links to check them out:
I run 3 group boards on Pinterest:
I'm also on group boards run by others:
Check them out on Pinterest!
Managing Your Social Media Content
Tailwind is a software program that will automatically post on Pinterest and Instagram on a regular schedule so you don't have to be tied to your computer ALL THE TIME.
Plus, they have a free trial! I love free stuff :) That was how I started using Tailwind. It's a browser app, but they also have apps for iPhones and Android. They really do a lot to help you make the best use of the program. They have:
Online chat with customer service within the app
Lots of articles and suggestions to promote your business
They also get back to you VERY quickly when you have questions! Their customer service is very helpful, and responds quickly.
Can you tell that I love this program?
This is fantastic! I use Tailwind to automatically schedule my pins days and weeks in advance. If I have one pin that I want to post on several boards, I can schedule it in Tailwind to spread out the posts using the scheduled interval feature. I can decide how long of an interval there should be between the posts, which order it should post to different Pinterest boards, and how long of a time period to spread them out. It will also repin any of my previous pins whatever I want it to, on a scheduled interval, using the SmartLoops feature.
It means that as far as Pinterest is concerned, I'm active on the site throughout the day. That means that pins from my site are going to rank higher in searches. Yay!
Communities (formerly called "Tribes")
Tailwind also has their own version of group boards, called Tailwind Communities. You have to have a Tailwind account to join one of their communities or to start your own, but everyone who joins a community is there to share their own pins and to share the pins of others.
I have several tribes that I manage on Tailwind that you can join:
You're in the tribes to advertise your own pins, but you also get help from others who will help you--just as you help them to share their own content. Click here to try Tailwind
Angie Gensler's Social Media Content Calendar
This is truly a fantastic resource! You can certainly create your own social media calendar for what you're going to post on:
And then good luck trying to figure out a system for scheduling and posting on a regular basis without spending ALL of your time in front of your computer while you do it, because it's a LOT of work.
That's why I have Angie's content calendar. She has an entire year planned out for you with all of that. She also has a lot of suggestions (scheduled in!) for keeping your account active without bombarding your customers with the same content all the time. Click here and read my full review on Angie's content calendar and the addition (and optional) images.
I was keeping lists and notes on various ideas, links, "to-do lists" that were everywhere... so of course everything was falling through the cracks and getting lost!
Then I signed up for Asana--for free! I love this site! All of that is in one place, and I can access it from my laptop, phone, or tablet. They have several templates to use, but you can also use your own.
At heart, it's a project management program, but you can use it even for small projects or task/to-do lists. What Asana allows you to do is keep track of:
All of your projects and tasks
What you need to do
What you've done so far
What you've finished
You can use it on your own, or as part of a team. I keep my links, to-do list, ideas for stuff, and keep track of my projects in it. It's a visual platform, so there is a bit of a learning curve if you haven't used anything like it before, but they do have tutorials and templates to get started--and they're free! They do have paid plans that offer a lot more features, but their free program has a LOT available. Click here to check out Asana.
I took a quick look at Trello, but that's all I did. It seems to do a lot of the things that Asana does, and it's also free (or at least has a free version).
The reason I'm listing it here is because I've heard a number of people try it and say they like it for tracking their blog posts. If I give it a try, I'll update this entry and let you know, but it's on this list because of the recommendation of others that I know. Plus, it's free.
Design Your Graphics Online
If you poke around my site, you'll quickly notice that I have NO visual design skills. So how do I create the images I use for my blog and Pinterest?
I use the free version of Canva, which is an online graphic design app where you can design your own graphics for almost everything! They have tons of templates for social media, ebooks, flyers, banners, and a bunch of other stuff. You can also create your customized image size and do whatever you want with it. There is a paid version which (of course) has a lot more features, but trying out the free one is definitely worth it!
Most of the pins I use on Pinterest are based on templates that were created by Angie Gensler. I also use her Viral Pin Formula ebook to figure out how to get people on Pinterest to notice (and click!) on my pins. I use her templates on Canva, and then swap out the images, text, and colors while keeping the basic design. Other designers will do the same thing, and offer templates to use on Canva. It really is easy to use!
Easil is a "new to me" online app for graphic design, so I've only played with it a little bit, but I really liked it! It has a different interface than Canva, so it takes some adjustment. I haven't used it to create graphics or pins yet, I've only played around, but it's a good one to keep on the list.
Selling Digital Products and Downloads
SendOwl will host your digital downloads so you don't have to rely on Google or pay an extra fee for Amazon to provide access to an online file. They will take care of the payment and taxes, send a link directly to your customers to download the file--with just one monthly fee!
That's right, you get to keep more of the money you earn when you use them.
They have size limits for the files, but there's no limit on the number of customers who can order the same file. Click here to check them out!
That's my list for now! I will update this page whenever I find new products or services that will help small online businesses, so bookmark the page and check back often!
If you have any recommendations, post them in the comments so I can check them out!
Original post date: 12/21/19